Five howling factual errors in just the first three lines
The Conversation, an online periodical publishing only academic authors, claiming to reach more than 10 million people throughout the English-speaking world, prides itself on fact-checking and peer-reviewed content, albeit allowing little or no opportunity for non-academics to respond to errors and offer corrections.
The Conversation pretense to objective accuracy, if the truth were widely known, should have taken a considerable hit on October 21, 2022, from publication of an essay entitled “Pit bulls went from America’s best friend to public enemy – now they’re slowly coming full circle,” by Colin Dayan, also known as Joan Dayan, a professor of law and English at Vanderbilt University, and a longtime pit bull owner and advocate.
Incidentally, the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, right across the same campus in Nashville, Tennessee, in just the past eight years has treated at least 19 patients who were severely disfigured by pit bulls, some of whom died of their injuries despite Vanderbilt’s best efforts.
Failed to check the data
Opened Dayan, “As recently as 50 years ago, the pit bull was America’s favorite dog.”
Fifty years ago was 1972. At least 16 dog breed types, many of them much more narrowly defined than “pit bull,” were verifiably far more popular in 1972, and for that matter at all times 1900-1979, including large retrievers, hounds, setters, small terriers, the northern breeds, beagles, boxers, spaniels, German shepherds, collies, corgis, Great Danes, and Dachshunds.
The data is all right here: https://www.animals24-7.org/wp-content/uploads/Dog-breeds-2022.pdf. Similar rosters are available from a variety of other sources, including the American Kennel Club.
RCA dog Nipper was not a pit bull
“Pit bulls were everywhere,” continued Dayan. “They were popular in advertising and used to promote the joys of pet-and-human friendship. Nipper on the RCA Victor label, Pete the Pup in the “Our Gang” comedy short films, and the flag-wrapped dog on a classic World War I poster all were pit bulls.”
This too could easily have been fact-checked. The history of Nipper, the dog on the RCA Victor label, listening to “His Master’s Voice,” is especially well-documented, including by RCA itself at https://www.rca.com/us_en/nipper-chipper-1720-us-en.
Chipper the pit mix showed up in 1990
The Nipper image originated in 1888 as a fox terrier belonging to British painter Francis Barraud.
Redrawn several times by various advertising artists, Nipper morphed into a Jack Russell terrier circa 1929.
Nipper was not joined by a companion named Chipper until 1948.
Chipper did not morph into a pit bull mix until 1990, 102 years after Nipper debuted, eighteen years after 1972.
“Pete the Pup” and the “Our Gang” film shorts actually originated in 1922, fifty years before “50 years ago,” and––though briefly revived many times––fell out of enduring popularity and profitability by 1945.
“Petey the Pup”
As the anonymous author of an online history entitled Pitty Scenes from the Silver Screen pointed out on July 25, 2013, “Even when these shorts were released for television in 1971, there was controversy over some of the racial humor, as well as other content deemed to be in bad taste, King World made significant edits to its Little Rascals TV prints. Petey the pit bull, pet to these hooligans, was a taboo choice, as pit bulls at the time had a solidly bad reputation.
“In nearly every episode where Petey makes an appearance,” Pitty Scenes from the Silver Screen points out, “you can witness gripping dog behavior,” including in an attack on an animal control officer.
Sired by Earl Tudor’s Black Jack
This was consistent with the original Petey’s ancestry. Pitty Scenes from the Silver Screen reports that, “The dog who originally played Petey was ‘Pal the Wonder dog,’ sired by Earl Tudor’s Black Jack. Earl Tudor was a famous dogfighter, and he considered Black Jack his best game dog. Pal was poisoned, and replaced with one of his offspring, Pete, whose grandma and ma were one and the same.”
World War I, meanwhile, ended in 1918, and was in no way contemporaneous with 1972.
Those curious about the fictitious role of pit bulls in World War I, including the easily documented falsification of the purported combat record of the Boston terrier Sergeant Stubby, may find the details here: Hitler’s pit bull, Sergeant Stubby the Boston terrier, & other dogs of war and here: Where the late Bernie Rollin got his garbled “facts” about pit bulls.
Can’t get a date
Having fumbled easily verifiable facts four times in just two sentences, Dayan went on to boot another: “With National Pit Bull Awareness Day celebrated on October 26…”
Declared annually by pit bull advocates since 2007, the 2022 National Pit Bull Awareness Day is actually scheduled for October 29, which Dayan, writing in part to promote it, might have been expected to know.
Dayan in The Conversation went on to allege that, “Starting around 1990, multiple features of American life converged to inspire widespread bans that made pit bulls outlaws.”
Reality is that community pit bull bans were already common long before that.
Ogden, Utah, for instance, banned pit bulls in 1914.
Many of the most prominent pit bull bans, for example in Denver and Miami-Dade County, Florida, were passed in the 1980s, after fatal pit bull attacks surged from 16 on record from 1930 through 1960 to two per year, plus dozens of disfigurements.
Pit bulls are now killing upward of 40 Americans per year.
Dayan proceeded from historical error to the calumny that “Pit bulls easily and quickly became associated with the poor, and especially with Black men, in a narrative that connected pit bulls with gang violence and crime.”
How pit bulls infiltrated the African-American community
Indeed, pit bulls were long associated with low-income white gamblers, especially in the rural South, who paid “protection money” to the Ku Klux Klan, who then controlled law enforcement in much of the South.
But there was little or no crossover of pit bulls and dogfighting to the African-American community then. The Klan did not want African-Americans to have dogs who could be used as weapons.
Indeed, when an African-American man named Charles Davis tried to steal a pit bull near Ocala, Florida in 1926, he ended up shooting a deputy sheriff in apparent self-defense, and was subsequently lynched.
Where Michael Vick’s pit bulls came from
Even when then-pro football star Michael Vick got into dogfighting, a few years before he was convicted of dogfighting-related offenses in 2007, he acquired at least some of his pit bulls from longtime white dogfighter David Tant, of Charleston County, South Carolina.
Tant was sentenced in December 2004 to serve 40 years in prison after pleading guilty to 41 counts of dogfighting and assault and battery. Tant was arrested after a surveyor stumbled into a trip-wire on his property set to deter possible dog thieves, and was wounded by a shotgun blast.
Tant won parole in September 2010 after claiming to have experienced a religious conversion.
33 questions answered on Reddit
While The Conversation offered no opportunity to rebut Dayan’s misrepresentations of fact and history, by coincidence another online medium with an audience of about 70,000 readers did, albeit quite by accident.
The Dayan screed was published the morning after ANIMALS 24-7 editors Merritt and Beth Clifton spent eight hours answering 33 questions submitted by readers of a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” feature that covered the same topics, plus quite a lot more, pertaining to a wide range of issues associated with pit bulls.
The complete question-and-answer session is posted at
Many ANIMALS 24-7 readers will find the entire 7,200-word interview to be of interest, but on the theory that brevity is the soul of wit, to avoid cutting into the readership of our Reddit hosts, and––we hope––to encourage readership of the whole interview, we offer these excerpts plus a few additional notes as a teaser:
Q – Is there any historical evidence that dogfighters ever actually culled human-aggressive dogs? That is something you hear a lot from pro-pit bull people.
Research any well-known dogfighter’s history and you’ll find instances of his/her dogs killing & injuring people, including family members & sometimes themselves. Often the killer dogs’ lines were advertised as proven “manstoppers.”
Further, since pit bulls are descended in part from war dogs and slavers’ dogs, aggression toward humans was bred into their family lines for centuries before the claim that “human-aggressive” dogs were culled first surfaced, about the time in the mid-1980s that the late advice columnist Ann Landers began pointing out the increasing frequency of pit bulls killing children.
Q – You have followed the pit bulls/BSL issue since 1982, yes? When did you first encounter rhetoric saying that pit bull bans are really just a covert way to keep out people of color by excluding their dogs, and what was the source?
This is an almost brand-new argument, & is completely without verifiable support.
We first heard it less than 10 years ago, and have never heard it from a person of color (any color other than white).
Anti-BSL activism comes very specifically & obviously almost entirely from white people, while African-Americans and Native Americans have been disproportionately often the victims of pit bull attacks since Christopher Columbus first brought war dogs to the Americas on his second voyage to the New World.
[Note further that Freedom To Discriminate: How Realtors Conspired to Segregate Housing And Divide America, a 469-page history by Gene Slater published in 2021 by Heyday Books of Berkeley, California, makes not a single mention of dogs in any context.]
The Broxton Plantation murder
Q – Could you comment on the idea that pit bulls had a positive public reputation until a racist association between pit bulls and Black people arose beginning in the 1970s?
Pit bulls never had a positive reputation, by any of the many names historically and currently used to describe them.
See SHARK fights pigeon shooters where black man was hunted for sport for a detailed description of how the use of pit bulls to kill an escaped slave on the Broxton Plantation in 1853 led to the unprecedented hanging of two white “sports,” Thomas Motley and William Blackledge, for the crime.
The racist association of pit bulls with African-Americans in 1853, when the Broxton Plantation murder transpired, was the use of pit bulls to kill and terrorize those who escaped from slavery.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Though that was relatively common in the Deep South, it fell into disrepute in South Carolina after the 1852 publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Depicting similar scenes, Uncle Tom’s Cabin became central to the Abolition movement against slavery. Many slave-holders were at pains to try to deny the veracity of Stowe’s work and discredit Stowe herself.
“No claim upon utility, humanity, or common sense”
Earlier, speaking of the dog now best known as a pit bull, the 1818 Manual of British Field Sports asserted that, “The bulldog, devoted solely to the most barbarous and infamous purposes, the real blackguard of his species, has no claim upon utility, humanity, or common sense, and the total extinction of the breed is a desirable consummation.”
Observed Lieutenant Colonel Charles Hamilton Smith, author of The Natural History of Dogs, published serially in 1839-1840 by W.H. Lizars of Edinburgh, Scotland, “The bull-dog is possessed of less sagacity and less attachment than any of the hound tribe; he is therefore less favored, and more rarely bred with care, excepting by professed amateurs of sports and feelings little commendable to humanity. He never leaves his hold, when once he has got it, while life lasts.”
Much other pit bull history, as well as those quotes, is here: Cane Corso: A pit bull by any other name.
The Ku Klux Klan era
Q – You’ve written about early associations between pit bulls/dog fighting and white supremacist groups. What are some good primary sources for anyone wanting to learn more?
Just go to www.NewspaperArchive or any other good online archive of historical newspaper coverage & start running searches. You’ll find the majority of case reports in newspapers that historically served the African-American community.
Note that many of these reports do not explicitly mention the race of the victims, because these newspapers existed in the first place to report the news of the African-American community, for the African-American community, and it was implicit that everyone mentioned, unless otherwise identified, would be African-American.
Here are two handy examples, dating respectively from 1851 and 1919:
Pit bull agenda
Q – Do you feel that there is an agenda behind the pit bull lobby pushing for these dogs? Do you also feel that shelters are paid by or run by pit lobbyists since we so much mislabeling and hiding of pits with bite histories?
Bearing in mind that one should never attribute to malice what may be attributed to stupidity, there was nonetheless a theory voiced among dogfighters in the 1970s and 1980s that if enough people could be persuaded to keep pit bulls, dogfighting could be re-legalized and popularized as a spectator sport.
This seems to have morphed into the theory expressed by pit bull advocates in recent decades that if enough people adopt pit bulls, breed-specific legislation can be forever obstructed & that pit bulls will fly out shelter doors, no matter how many are owner-surrendered.
Incidentally, it is no secret that many shelters are managed by pit bull advocates, some of whom are paid consultants for pro-pit bull organizations. This has been going on, with increasing frequency, since the 1990s.
Where/why the pit bull lobby started
Q – Could you please expound a bit on where/why the pit bull lobby started and what you believe the ultimate goal of the pro-pit bull policies to be? I can’t seem to wrap my head around what possibly could be good about supporting the overbreeding and lack of regulation of such a dangerous and unpredictable animal.
Pit bull advocacy is not a new phenomenon. It emerged in the U.S. around the same time dogfighting began to be banned in state after state, in the early 20th century.
The blind author Clarence Hawkes and the actress Dolores Del Rio were the most prominent public voices of pit bull advocacy in the 1920s and 1930s, respectively.
Efforts led by the dogfighter John P. Colby and family, among others, to secure “purebred” status for their pit bulls, rebranded “Staffordshires,” continued for decades, including through the formation of the United Kennel Club (1898) and the Staffordshire Club of America (1935).
Post-World War II, pit bull advocacy went underground for a while, but re-emerged through the efforts of the author Vicki Hearne, the literary agent Jane Berkey, and the Animal Farm Foundation, which they began in 1986 with the assistance of Andrew Rowan, former senior vice president of the Humane Society of the U.S. and founder of the Center for Animals & Public Policy at Tufts University.
Among the many other topics addressed by the ANIMALS 24-7 team at
are breed-specific legislation, criminal and civil liability for dog attacks, “one free bite” laws, the parallels between the pit bull issue and the gun control issue, and why the animal care-and-control community is conspicuously ineffective in preventing dog attacks, pit bull attacks in particular.